Stars on the Bimah
Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories
Photographs by Linda Solomon
Simon & Schuster, 176 pages, $25.
Most American Jews have at least one good bar mitzvah story to tell… even celebrities. Actor Harvey Fierstein’s drama queen grandmother faked a heart attack during his ceremony (he kept on singing the Hebrew prayers); comedian Judy Gold stood 6 feet tall — towering over the 5-foot, 2-inch rabbi — at age 13, and comedian Howie Mandel had to slow down the hora so that a sketch artist (hired in lieu of a photographer) could get the right angle.
These are just a few of the personal accounts recorded in Jill Rappaport’s new book, “Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories.” It’s no secret that Jews love to be informed that their favorite Hollywood stars are members of the tribe, and Rappaport, an entertainment correspondent for the NBC morning show “Today,” takes that guilty pleasure to a whole new level.
“Mazel Tov” features interviews with well-known Hollywood personalities (such as Kirk Douglas and Larry King), prominent businessmen (for example, Ronald Perelman and Jeff Zucker) and political figures (such as Joseph Lieberman and Ed Koch). The celebrities openly discuss their families and childhoods, as well as their connection to Judaism. They offer vivid accounts of how they were affected by their bar and bat mitzvahs, and recall minute details of the day (actor Jeremy Piven, a fan of the iconic ’70s film “Saturday Night Fever,” wore a three-piece pinstripe suit and a wide white collar, and designer Michael Kors’s color scheme involved an abundance of chocolate brown and mustard). Though a fair share of those interviewed say that today they are agnostic, most look back fondly on the day they were called to the bimah.
The personal anecdotes are amusing and sweet, but patches of weak writing and some oddly phrased questions that occur throughout the book are disappointing and distracting. The strongest feature of “Mazel Tov” could be the family photos and snapshots that accompany each chapter, proving that even celebrities are not immune to awkward stages.
Of course, there are inspirational stories, too, particularly among the actors. Marlee Matlin overcame her deafness to learn Hebrew and to read from the Torah; Henry Winkler had to contend with severe dyslexia to learn his portion, and Kirk Douglas had his second bar mitzvah at age 83, “to honor [his] mother.”
Many interviewees pinpointed the recitation of their synagogue speeches as an important turning point in their lives. Realizing that getting up in front of a crowded room was enjoyable rather than anxiety provoking, a career in the spotlight seemed an obvious choice. Lieberman even recalls how, at his candle-lighting ceremony, a cousin predicted his occupation, introducing him as a future senator of the United States.
While many of those included in the book are now rich and famous, almost all reminisce about the days when bar and bat mitzvahs were less extravagant. Even billionaire businessman Perelman eschews today’s sky’s-the-limit type of celebration, saying: “I think it’s terrible. My daughter Samantha’s party was a nice party, a fun party, but a simple party…. In other words, nothing elaborate about it.”
The best example of the bar mitzvah tradition spiralling out of control comes in a chapter titled “The Bark Mitzvah Lady.” In 1997, Ruth Bell threw a double “bark mitzvah” for her 2-year-old dogs (just about 13 in human years!) that rivaled any of the human variety. Bell admits to spending somewhere around $10,000 on the fully catered event, which included matchbox favors, T-shirts, Iams centerpieces and a candle-lighting ceremony. Although she is not a celebrity, her entry is certainly a humorous (if utterly perplexing) addition to the book. As they say, only in America!
Lucy Cohen Blatter is a Manhattan-based freelance writer whose bat mitzvah was a simple affair.